Friday March 23, 2001

     "Heartbreakers" teams Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt as world-class mother-daughter con artists--sexy, daring, smart, shameless yet endearing. As Hollywood diversions go, this gleaming MGM release still leaves you wishing the filmmakers took as many risks as their grifters do.
     Writers Robert Dunn and the team of Paul Guay & Stephen Mazur have fashioned a clever screenplay, but at more than two hours it's too long to sustain farcical romantic comedy. Director David Mirkin, a producer on "The Simpsons," manages to inspire his cast, but the film unfolds in an impersonal, by-the-book fashion that threatens to become downright laborious.
     There's never a feeling that Mirkin approaches the material with a shrug of the shoulders or that he dares to encourage his actors to throw away a line. Perhaps movies have become simply too expensive to allow most directors to have much fun making them or even much spontaneity. Or maybe they just don't know as well as they should their Lubitsch, Sturges, Hawks and Wilder, all of whom turned out effortless souffles from similar material.
     Fortunately for "Heartbreakers," Weaver is exceptional. She has a natural aristocrat's inherent sense of style, gallantry, wit and utter lack of self-pity regardless of whether she's taking on that alien in outer space, gorilla poachers in Africa or, in the remarkable "A Map of the World," in which a Midwestern community was determined to punish her for the accidental death of a child.
     Never has Weaver been so alluring or seductive, and it's always a pleasure to see a serious actress get a big glamour role that allows her to look spectacular at all times. Weaver's Max Conners, using the name Angela Nardino, has nailed Dean Cumanno (Ray Liotta), New Jersey chop shop proprietor--i.e., a dealer in stolen cars. Once having taken Dean as husband No. 13, Angela proves a terrible tease on the eve of her honeymoon--a sequence that is as hilarious as it is steamy.
     Poor Dean has no idea that his aggressively sexy new secretary (Hewitt) is his bride's daughter, about to maneuver the frustrated bridegroom into a compromising position so that her mother can walk in at precisely the right moment to shake him down.
     Hewitt's Page is getting a little tired of pulling cons with her mother for comparatively modest rewards. Believing she's ready to strike out on her own, she leans hard on Max to pull off a really big con that will allow them both independence. Max has reservations about Page being ready to go it alone but decides they should head for Palm Beach, where Max takes aim at William B. Tensy (Gene Hackman), a billionaire tobacco tycoon who is doing a first-rate job of smoking himself to death.
     In the meantime, Page meets Jack (Jason Lee), a likably laid-back bartender. Page is drawn to him--especially when she learns that the beach bar where he works is in fact his own, an inheritance from his father, and that a developer is willing to pay Jack $3 million for it.
     Alas, Page is not quite yet as hardened a con woman as her mother, who had been ditched by her husband as soon as she became pregnant with Page; Page's genuine feelings for Jack could spell danger for mother and daughter alike.
     There's lots that's funny and inspired that occurs as the film's cross/double-cross plot plays out. Consummate sleight-of-hand maestro Ricky Jay (who has a cameo as an auctioneer) was the film's technical advisor on the cons, and mother and daughter are forever turning tables on someone, even each other.
     Weaver and Hewitt prove adroit at this, and that they seem to be having fun proves contagious and to some extent compensates for the film's lack of style and energy. But they've been given too many plates to juggle; their act threatens to go stale before the show is over.
     If at times Weaver recalls Lesley Ann Warren's way with a dubious wide-eyed innocence, Liotta is even more reminiscent of Tony Curtis in appearance and in his ability to bring out the farcical qualities in a professional crook menaced by falling in love. Hackman is fun, too, as an absurdly self-indulgent type, but would be lots more amusing if he'd been given a running gag somewhat less grim than chain-smoking with a cough so constant and wracking it is all too clearly a death rattle.
     Anne Bancroft is delightfully astringent as Max's chic mentor, who is no more to be trusted then her protegee. "Heartbreakers" takes place in a well-evoked world of conspicuous luxury. So elegant and distinctive are Ann Roth's stunning, high-style costumes for Sigourney Weaver that it wouldn't come as a surprise if Weaver arranged to keep them for herself.


Heartbreakers, 2001. PG-13, for sex-related content, including dialogue. An MGM Pictures presentation of a Davis Entertainment Company/Irving Ong production. Director David Mirkin. Producers John Davis and Irving Ong. Executive producers Clayton Townsend, Gary Smith, Hadeel Reda. Screenplay by Robert Dunn and Paul Guay & Stephen Mazur. Cinematographer Dean Semler. Editor William Steinkamp. Music John Debney. "Heartbreakers" theme by Danny Elfman. Costumes Gary Jones. Ms. Weaver's costumes designed by Ann Roth. Production designer Lilly Kilvert. Art director John Warnke. Set decorator Kathy Lucas. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes. Sigourney Weaver as Max Conners. Jennifer Love Hewitt as Page Conners. Ray Liotta as Dean Cumanno. Gene Hackman as William B. Tensy.